I’d Like You to Meet Cindy
Cindy is a forty two year old woman living a normal life. She works forty hours each week, goes to the gym, and is happily married with two children - but something just isn’t right. Increasingly she feels tired which is very different from ten years ago when she was an avid tri-athlete. She can never warm up even though she lives here in Southern California. She quietly worries that her performance at work is suffering though she is not sure how to improve. Thoughts seem increasingly foggy. Remembering what groceries she was supposed to buy later that day seems somehow much less organized than even this time last year. And where did she park her car anyway? She still works out three times a week but just can’t seem to lose any of those fifteen extra pounds that she put on in the last two years. All this and she even eats a healthy diet! Her interest in sex has gone down and the amount of hair collecting in the shower drain every morning is getting downright scary!
Do you know anyone like this? Chances are you do. And I didn’t even get into the bowel habits which come along with situations like this. Cindy may be suffering from a Low Thyroid condition. The signs and symptoms that I describe here are classic with a Low Thyroid. But Cindy has a problem aside from the things she is experiencing. She has been to her medical doctor on a number of occasions and has been told repeatedly, “Well Cindy, all of your tests appear normal.” What now? The doctor says she is fine! Is this all in her head? Is she crazy or suffering burn out?
Chances are no, there really is something going on but the doctors just aren’t finding it. I would like to explain to you here in this piece a little more about the Thyroid system, how it works, and why things like this are routinely missed.
The Gas Pedal for Your Cells
It is important to understand that for every hormone there is a receptor for that hormone. Think of a key and a lock which fits only that key. That is basically how hormones work. There is not one cell in the human body that does not have receptors for Thyroid hormones. This means that there is not one cell in the body that does not require Thyroid Hormone stimulation. If you think for a moment about the importance of the brain and then consider a brain with less than optimal stimulation from the Thyroid, the fall-out can be endless. Think of the Thyroid system as the “gas pedal” for each cell in the body. If there isn’t enough gas then the cell just does not go. Things slow down, the brain becomes sluggish and weight accumulates because we literally can’t burn the calories. Every system in the body can begin to falter.
The Scientific Part
I need to describe the basics of Thyroid physiology so that you understand why things are getting missed out there. It all starts in the brain. Everything does. A structure in the brain called the Hypothalamus sends signals to the Pituitary Gland to secrete Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). This is not a Thyroid hormone yet. It is just like it sounds. It is a “stimulating” hormone. It stimulates the Thyroid to work and produce the Thyroid hormones T4 and T3. T4 is the hormone which is produced in the greatest amounts but is generally considered inactive. Think of this as a form of checks and balances. The body requires activation of these hormones at several stages before they can be used. If we had too much Thyroid hormone activity all at once it could kill us. That is why a hyperthyroid (elevated Thyroid hormone) condition can be so dangerous. So TSH tells the Thyroid gland to produce mostly inactive T4 which then gets converted into the active form T3 which takes place primarily in the liver, but some conversion does occur in the intestines as well.
One Way Things Get Missed
So think for a moment. If the Thyroid itself is healthy but the liver or intestines are not for some reason then the Thyroid system (not the Thyroid gland) is impacted! This is something that is overlooked all the time in the mainstream approach where often times only TSH is tested for and nothing else. Medications are usually prescribed based solely upon the TSH levels. Very little attention is given to the steps further down the line in most blood tests.
So to reiterate the basic chain of events:
Hypothalamus (brain) > Pituitary Gland (TSH) > Thyroid (~93% T4 / ~7% T3) > Liver & Intestines (T3 – active hormone) > Stimulation to ALL of the cells and tissues of the body
The Hidden Menace (Yes, a shameless Star Wars reference)
Now it is very important to understand that there are over twenty different reasons for the Thyroid system to be out of balance. But according to the medical literature approximately 80% of the “Low Thyroid” cases out there are due to an autoimmune Thyroid condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroid. The term “autoimmune” roughly translates into self-attack. So in this case the body’s own immune system attacks the Thyroid gland. This will usually present with the low Thyroid symptoms Cindy was suffering. But this condition can also come with intermittent Hyper-Thyroid symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations, diarrhea and/or inward trembling. This concept is unfortunately routinely under-diagnosed. The treatment in the mainstream health care system is simply no different than if it were due to a basic Low Thyroid condition so the tests necessary to differentiate the two are not commonly done. But be rest assured, Hashimoto’s is not a basic Low Thyroid condition. It is an autoimmune condition concern first and a Thyroid condition second. And hidden inflammatory conditions always drive things like autoimmunity.
I bring up inflammation here because it is perhaps one of the most significant common factor in all major disease states. Cancer, Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Autoimmunity, Heart Disease, and more all have inflammation at the base. And by inflammation I am not talking about how your muscles feel after going to the gym. I am talking about little molecules that the immune system makes which float around wreaking havoc everywhere they go! And it just so happens that these little things get into the brain very easily and work to slow down function. Very quickly things like neurotransmitter function declines for example. Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that carry signals from brain cell to brain cell. Antidepressant medications for example work with the neurotransmitter activity in the brain.
The Thyroid-Brain Connection
So what does all this have to do with the Thyroid? Plenty! The Neurotransmitters Serotonin and Dopamine, aside from allowing us to be happy and not depressed, also stimulate the release of TSH. And as you remember TSH kicks off the whole Thyroid system chain of events. But what do you know… Low Thyroid activity will also hinder the production and activity of things like Serotonin and Dopamine and every other part of brain health. So very quickly we have ourselves a viscous cycle at play. Low Thyroid leads to lower brain activity which leads to Low Thyroid and so on and so forth. And that is just the beginning. Before long our friend Cindy is left feeling overwhelmed by the things which once were totally within her abilities. She does not get the same pleasure out of the things she once did. Motivation goes down. There are less things which stimulate her brain adequately to keep her brain cells healthy and productive. Things like exercise go away. Interest in sex goes down or away completely. It does not matter how these viscous cycles start. Just know that once they do it takes a concerted effort to get them to unwind again.
The Weight Gain Concern
One more concept that I want to address here is weight gain because it is often times synonymous with Thyroid conditions. When the Thyroid system is low I have likened this to not pushing fully on the gas pedal of your cells. So hormonally in these cases you just can’t burn enough energy and you therefore store it in the fat cells. But in cases of systemic inflammation, like you see with an Autoimmune Thyroid condition for example, the body is actually being told to directly store fat aside from the Thyroid concept. And then as if to rub salt in the wound those same inflammatory molecules, called cytokines, shut down enzymes which allow us to burn the fat we have just stored! So for the 80% or so of people out there who have a Low Thyroid condition we can be reasonably sure that not only do they have the downfalls of a basic low Thyroid but they also have the added strain of a systemic inflammatory condition which has the ability to lead to weight gain as well as poor brain function. But to reduce this situation to just those areas of our health would not be fair or realistic. All areas of our health will be negatively impacted under these conditions.
The Sugar Connection
So now that we are all in agreement that it is not a good idea to allow situations like these to take hold, what can we do to avoid this? Or what if someone already has these things going on? The answers are rather simple in theory at least. Before we go run out there and start filling our baskets with mountains of supplements or medications. Or we start going on starvation diets, or brutal exercise programs, let’s start more simply. Let’s start by looking at things we may be doing every day that are feeding this inflammatory condition. It is a well-known fact that the hormone Insulin, though vital for life, is extremely inflammatory when increased above healthy levels. How does Insulin go up you ask? How about we order a nice big bowl of pasta and talk about it! Yep, the more simple, non-fibrous carbohydrate that you consume the more Insulin you produce. Add to that the giant caramel mocha latte with sweetened vanilla whipped cream that you may drink once or perhaps twice a day and now you are seeing what I mean. Oh and Easter is coming up and I just love those Crème Eggs! And that bowl of Peanut Butter Cups in the office. I just can’t help myself. You can see how our culture is just trying to inflame us. So cut that kind of stuff out for Pete’s sake! No don’t live like a monk but break free of the mindless foraging on such things. Instead, let them be a special treat here and there.
The Gluten Connection
Gluten on the other hand is perhaps one of the most prolific and damaging things that we regularly consume in this country. I am doing gluten a huge injustice trying to describe the health ramifications in just this short paragraph. Gluten, please forgive me. But with respect to the Thyroid system Gluten is just about the most powerful component leading to the disharmonies I described above. Believe me when I tell you that I have seen Thyroid panels return to normal just by eliminating gluten from the diet! This is particularly true if you are among the 80% who have the Autoimmune Thyroid condition. I challenge anyone with a Thyroid disorder to get a good Gluten screen done. I rarely ever see them negative. But I will stake my name and reputation on the seriousness of Gluten with respect to the Thyroid conditions I see every day. Believe it or not, Gluten reactions only impact the digestive system approximately 30% of the time. The other 70% of the reactions are usually neurological. It all comes back to brain folks. If we don’t address the brain component to most all problems, the Thyroid included, then we are forgetting a major part of the equation. But glands like the Thyroid and Pancreas are both tightly linked to gluten reactions as well.
So in conclusion of my thoughts here we have to sit and marvel at the complexity and significance of the Thyroid system. It is the system in our body which promotes cellular activity. It helps us have the energy to be happy, healthy, energetic people. It allows our immune systems to operate well. It stimulates our brains to function well. It influences how our sex hormones operate. And of course it can have a great deal to do with how much weight we carry. The trouble is working with someone who understands all the intricate details. The Thyroid system is full of subtle factors that when missed may just be the difference between success and failure to pull a person back into balance. If you are suffering from any of the symptoms described in this article it is worth a good work up within the Functional Blood Chemistry arena. You would be surprised to find out what can be seen if you only look in the right places.